“How disgusted my younger self would be – that baby misogynist who was defiantly, desperately one of the blokes – to learn that my addiction story makes for a very female case study.”
Jenny Valentish’s Woman of Substances is a remarkable achievement. Combining research and interviews with raw tales drawn from her own experience, the just-released book is an incredible study of drug and alcohol abuse by women, written from a unique perspective.
Despite an extensive magazine career both in Australia and overseas, and a previously released novel, when it came to writing Woman of Substances, Valentish says, “I kept chickening out. As a journalist we tend to profile and hold up the mirror to other people – and we kind of vanish. So to put myself in the spotlight was really, really uncomfortable.”
That spotlight is what sets the book apart – the study of women’s experience of substance abuse from both a personal and scientific perspective. As a reporter, Valentish understands that academic journal articles aren’t exactly page-turners. At the same time, she’s aware of the limitations of memoir in presenting hard facts. By mixing the two, she gives numbers a story, and theories a narrative.
Woman of Substances combines vignettes of Valentish’s own experiences of drugs, alcohol and abuse with a broad cross section of interviews with doctors, psychologists and industry professionals. It’s a book that engages readers with storytelling while presenting scientific findings and theories in a way that is accessible to a broad audience.
“There’s a saying: ‘Be the person you needed when you were younger’,” Valentish says. “This is kind of like that. This is the book I needed when I was younger. My aim was that on every single page, someone reading it could find out something they didn’t know before. And hopefully some comfort as well.”
Woman of Substances takes a non-linear route through Valentish’s childhood in Slough (the UK town best-known as the setting for The Office). It covers her experiences pilfering alcohol from her father’s liquor cabinet, through to a tragic early experience of abuse with a boy five years her elder, then teenage years spent with older men and in the music scene. At every point, the vignettes are placed alongside research and theories: about impulse control, about early-established personality traits, about the role sexual abuse can play in determining a person’s long-term relationship with substances. “It’s literally to illustrate the points I want to make with regards to what the issues are for women,” she explains.
The book is strengthened by Valentish sharing her own story, but making herself the case study was a difficult choice. “You know the people who do get it will really get it. Then there will be the people who are just embarrassed for you,” she laughs. “I had to basically keep saying to myself, ‘You’ve got to think of the intended reader’. For me, that was very likely a woman who’s struggling. So whenever other people would pop in my head – like in-laws, or my parents, or the critics, or just those weirdos you’ve met at different points in your past who you don’t really want to read it – I just had to put them out of my mind and think of the reader. What does she want to know? What does she need to know?
Grounding the book in the female experience is not a comment on who has it worse. It’s simply to point out there are differences, biological and social, that impact on a person’s relationship to substances. No idea or theory goes unchallenged. Strongly held assumptions are interrogated, taken apart and then pieced back together. Do women really self-medicate more than men? Or, as Valentish says, “Maybe women are widely believed to use substances to self-medicate because that’s the sad little box we’re supposed to stay in. God forbid we take drugs to enjoy ourselves.”
The book is painfully relatable in surprising ways; it digs into personality, impulsivity, control and expectation, all tethering back to how substances, drugs and alcohol weave their way into our lives in different ways. “My goal was that it would improve the life and knowledge of even a small handful of women,” Valentish says, adding that her long-term hope for the book is it will one day become a study text. “I think this is really genuinely helpful information,” she reflects. “It was for me.”
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